Spinal Column: Take precautions in Michigan’s icy winter

Posted · Add Comment
Sen. Mike Kowall

Sen. Mike Kowall

By Sen. Mike Kowall
15th Senate District

As we enter the final weeks of January, I hope you are enjoying another Michigan winter. As I discussed last month, we are blessed with a multitude of ways to enjoy our state’s natural beauty during our colder months.

A change in temperature, however — such as the one caused by the recent invasion of arctic air, which sent temperatures plunging to single digits, with wind chills of 25° below zero or worse — brings unique dangers.

The first threat posed by extreme cold, of course, is frostbite. Frostbite and hypothermia are caused by too much exposure to cold, wind or moisture. Before heading outside, make sure you:
• Plan to limit your time outdoors if it is very cold, wet or windy;
• Put on several layers of loose clothing;
• Wear mittens instead of gloves, if necessary;
• Cover your head and ears with a warm hat; and
• Wear socks that keep your feet warm and dry.

Fluctuating winter temperatures present yet another danger we might not consider: They can weaken the ice. If you enjoy ice fishing, snowmobiling on frozen waters, or simply venturing out on the ice, you must be aware of how changing temperatures can affect ice strength.

New ice created after a cold front moves through should be regarded with caution. Very cold temperatures can quickly weaken ice and cause large cracks within hours. In addition, when temperatures vary widely, ice may thaw during the day and refreeze at night, resulting in weakened, unsafe ice.

For those who do enjoy exploring the ice, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) offers several ice safety tips. Among other recommendations, their list includes the following:
• Ice conditions vary from lake to lake. Find a good local source — a bait shop or fishing guide — that is knowledgeable about ice conditions on the lake you want to discover;
• Tell a responsible adult where you are going and what time to expect you back. Relaying your plan could help save your life if something does happen to you on the ice;
• Ice covered by snow always should be presumed unsafe. Snow acts like an insulating blanket and slows the freezing process. Ice under the snow will be thinner and weaker. A snowfall also can warm up and melt existing ice;
• If there is slush on the ice, stay off. Slush ice is only about half as strong as clear ice and indicates the ice is no longer freezing from the bottom;
• A minimum of four inches of clear ice is required to support an average person’s weight on the ice, but since ice seldom forms at a uniform rate it is important to check ice thickness with a spud and ruler every few steps;
• The DNR does not recommend taking a car or truck out onto the ice at any time;
• Wear a life jacket and brightly colored clothing; and
• Take a cell phone for emergency use.

The DNR also recommends that if you fall through the ice, try to remain calm, and don’t remove winter clothing — it can trap air to provide warmth and flotation. Next, turn in the water toward the direction you came from.

If you have ice picks, dig the points of the picks into the ice and pull yourself onto the surface while vigorously kicking your feet and sliding forward on the ice. Next, to distribute your weight and help avoid breaking through again, roll away from the area of weak ice.

Finally, get to shelter, put on dry clothing and warm yourself, and drink non-alcoholic and non-caffeinated drinks. Call 911 and seek medical attention if you feel disoriented, have uncontrollable shivering, or have any other ill effects that may be symptoms of hypothermia.

A full list of ice safety tips can be found on the DNR’s website at www.michigan.gov/dnr. Enter “ice safety tips” in the search bar.

Rich adventures await us in Michigan’s icy winter — but only if we take the proper precautions.

This column first appeared in the Spinal Column newsweekly. Senator Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, is the Michigan Senate majority floor leader. He serves the residents of the 15th Senate District, representing western Oakland County.